Couple pleads not guilty to cat cruelty

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The couple arrested and charged with felony aggravated animal cruelty after more than 100 cats were found inside two trailers near Marion in December pleaded innocent in Flathead County District Court Thursday.

Edwin and Cheryl Criswell entered their pleas to District Judge David Ortley, who was asked by Cheryl Criswell’s attorney to consider allowing her to visit the cats.

About 112 of the animals are being housed at the Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force, where a trailer has been remodeled to hold them. They were taken from two dilapidated trailers described as “coated with feces”  Dec. 22 and were suffering from neglect and a number of health issues, according to court documents.

“The Criswells are trying to go out there and visit the cats,” said Deputy County Attorney Kenneth Park, who asked that they be barred from doing so.

While Edwin Criswell did not object to the stipulation, his wife did.

“As an individual who has cared for cats and loves the cats, this has been very difficult for her,” said Lane Bennett, who is representing Cheryl Criswell.

Bennett said his client is in a fragile mental state and that a court-designated visitation could be helpful to the animals as well.

“Maybe it would be healthy for the cats. We don’t know their state of mind either,” Bennett said.

Park said the Spay and Neuter Task Force, dependent on volunteers, does not have time to designate or supervise visitation hours between the cats and their former owners.

Ortley denied Cheryl Criswell’s request, but said he might consider the possibility of allowing Criswell “meaningful contact” with the cats in the future.

“I don’t know which of the 88 cats that would be with,” he said.

Cheryl Criswell said she had a list of about 15 cats that she and Edwin Criswell considered their own personal animals.

The couple, who have said they were trying to operate an animal rescue facility, have been released from the Flathead County Detention Center.

It’s not the first time they’ve faced criminal charges for possessing an inordinate number of felines.

More than 400 cats were seized from the Criswells in Bonner County, Idaho, in 2006, leading to misdemeanor charges and suspended jail sentences that prohibited them from having more than 20 domesticated animals in their possession.

In Montana, a felony aggravated animal cruelty conviction carries a maximum penalty of two years with the Montana State Department of Corrections and a fine of $2,500.

Trials for Edwin and Cheryl Criswell are tentatively scheduled to begin April 4.

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